This has never happened before. A week after a (sort of) triumphal nominating convention, one of our two major political parties decided they had nominated a madman:
Turmoil in the Republican Party escalated Wednesday as party leaders, strategists and donors voiced increased alarm about the flailing state of Donald Trump’s candidacy and fears that the presidential nominee was damaging the party with an extraordinary week of self-inflicted mistakes, gratuitous attacks and missed opportunities.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was described as “very frustrated” with and deeply disturbed by Trump’s behavior over the past week, having run out of excuses to make on the nominee’s behalf to donors and other party leaders, according to multiple people familiar with the events.
Meanwhile, Trump’s top campaign advisers are struggling once again to instill discipline in their candidate, who has spent recent days lurching from one controversy to another while seemingly skipping chances to go on the offensive against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“A new level of panic hit the street,” said longtime operative Scott Reed, chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s time for a serious reset.”
But what did they expect? The base had wanted a madman, a candidate that would say and do what no other politician had ever said and done before, and the party had said fine – they need that solid base to be with them – and they figured they could talk some sense into this guy, later. That was a basic misunderstanding of the nature of madmen – sense just doesn’t make sense to them. Now they’re paying the price for that, even if they’re still hoping for the impossible:
Trump allies on Wednesday publicly urged the candidate to reboot, furious that he has allowed his confrontation with the Muslim parents of dead Army Capt. Humayun Khan to continue for nearly a week. They also are angry with Trump because of his refusal in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday to endorse two of the GOP’s top elected officials – House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) – ahead of their coming primary elections.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), one of Trump’s most loyal defenders, warned that his friend was in danger of throwing away the election and helping to make Clinton president.
“The current race is which of these two is the more unacceptable, because right now, neither of them is acceptable,” he said. “Trump is helping her to win by proving he is more unacceptable than she is.”
Gingrich said Trump has only a matter of weeks to reverse course. “Anybody who is horrified by Hillary should hope that Trump will take a deep breath and learn some new skills,” he said. “He cannot win the presidency operating the way he is now. She can’t be bad enough to elect him if he’s determined to make this many mistakes.”
There is, however, no indication that Trump will take a deep breath and learn some new skills, although he sensed something was wrong, and decided to say that nothing was wrong:
Campaigning in Florida, Trump sought to pivot away from his problems. He addressed the controversy and speculation, saying his campaign is “doing really well” and has “never been this well united,” then focused renewed attacks on Clinton and President Obama.
But the idea that the campaign was fully united was undercut when Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, told Fox News Channel that he “strongly endorsed” Ryan in his primary campaign. Other Republicans viewed the endorsement as a sign that he is having some influence within the campaign, said a person familiar with Pence’s role.
Campaign manager Paul Manafort went on cable news channels earlier in the day to try to tamp down the rampant criticism of the GOP nominee, saying that reports of a campaign staff in crisis were incorrect. He said the campaign is “focused,” in “very good shape” and “moving forward.”
No one believed that, but there’s always hope:
Throughout the day, there were also persistent reports that allies of Trump, including Priebus, Gingrich and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, were trying to arrange a meeting with Trump to urge him to refocus his candidacy. Manafort, when asked on Fox News about such a meeting, said he knew nothing about it. “Not me,” Gingrich said in an email when asked if he were part of an upcoming meeting.
A knowledgeable GOP strategist said, “It’s not happening,” then added, “It doesn’t take a genius to know that calling Donald Trump and yelling at him is never going to work.”
Yes, they were going to stage an intervention – like confronting the kid about his drug problem and shipping him off to rehab – but there’s no rehab for this, and yelling at this kid would only make things worse. But there was this:
At past moments of crisis in the campaign, Trump’s children have played an influential role, and there was some hope within the party that they could again provide help. Bloomberg Politics reported Wednesday afternoon, however, that Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump had left for a hunting trip outside the country.
His boys are big-game trophy hunters. They were off to kill lions or elephants, or any random large endangered species before the critters were all gone, so all that was left was the mess at hand:
Friends and allies of Manafort disputed reports that the top adviser had given up on Trump, describing him as fully committed to waging a successful campaign. But they said Manafort has been frustrated by Trump’s apparent lack of discipline on the stump and in his many media interviews.
“Paul has good influence with Donald,” said Charlie Black, a longtime GOP strategist and former business partner of Manafort’s. “But he’s Donald, and he’s going to operate stream of consciousness a lot of times. You just hope he’ll have more days on message than days on consciousness.”
A second GOP strategist who also knows Manafort said Trump’s campaign manager is “the most aggressive guy I’ve ever met.”
“My guess is he’s trying to make the best of this for the campaign,” said this strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “But this is not the plan. There’s no way to explain that this is what you want done in the middle of your campaign.”
Again, what did they expect? The base wanted a stream of consciousness vindictive madman, to stick it to anyone and everyone who had disrespected them over all the years. They got what they wanted, with the party’s approval, which is, of course, disappearing:
Trump suffered two defections Wednesday when Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), an Iraq War veteran, said on CNN that he is unlikely to vote for Trump because the nominee was “beginning to cross a lot of red lines of the unforgivable in politics.”
Former Montana governor Marc Racicot, a former RNC chairman and a close associate of former president George W. Bush’s, also said he won’t vote for Trump.
Meg Whitman, the billionaire CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and the most effective fundraiser the Republicans have had in generations, also said she cannot vote for Trump. She endorsed Hillary Clinton. She also said she’d fundraise for Clinton too – and she can amass the big bucks. She’s done that for Republicans for years. Now she’ll do that for this Democrat. Damn.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way:
Two weeks ago at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, GOP leaders were buoyed by what they saw in Trump. But he quickly reverted to his old ways, setting off alarms in some parts of the party.
“I’m pulling for him, but he’s not driving on the pavement. He’s in the ditch,” said Henry Barbour, an RNC member and longtime strategist in Mississippi. “I’m frustrated. There’s time to fix it, but there’s one person who can fix it. It’s up to him.”
A Republican consultant who is working on Senate and gubernatorial races nationwide says the situation is wreaking havoc.
“The level of uncertainty with Trump just throws everyone off. It really hurts all of them,” the consultant said. “The Republican Party to him is like any kind of real estate deal. It’s all transactional. He’s willing to burn the house down.”
Hey, that’s what the base loved about him all along!
That, however, is useless:
Trump has not taken advantage of Friday’s report showing slow economic growth in the last quarter or of an interview Clinton gave to Fox News’s Chris Wallace on Sunday in which she said that FBI Director James B. Comey had generally agreed with her characterizations of her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. The interview has drawn criticism from fact checkers at news organizations.
“At some point, he needs to be immeasurably better than Hillary Clinton, but he’s not going to have an opportunity to govern if he doesn’t begin to bring Republicans together and then, eventually, bring independents and even Democrats on board and convince them that he can do this job,” Barbour said.
Barbour said he, like others, has been frustrated by missed opportunities since the Democratic National Convention ended Thursday night. “The last several days have made this election a referendum on Donald Trump. We want this to be a referendum on Hillary Clinton and the wrong direction the country’s on.”
That’s too bad, because the initial numbers are in on that referendum on Donald Trump:
Hillary Clinton soared ahead of Republican opponent Donald Trump by 10 points nationally in the latest Fox News poll.
Clinton received support from nearly half the people polled by Fox, 49-39. It is the largest lead she has held over Trump since March, according to the pollster’s data. In the previous Fox poll, conducted June 26-28, Clinton led Trump by six points, 44-38.
When Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was included, Clinton polled at 44 percent, Trump at 35 percent, and Johnson at 12 percent.
This is not good, and that called for extreme measures:
Republican officials are exploring how to handle a scenario that would be unthinkable in a normal election year: What would happen if the party’s presidential nominee dropped out?
ABC News has learned that senior party officials are so frustrated – and confused – by Donald Trump’s erratic behavior that they are exploring how to replace him on the ballot if he drops out.
Bully for them, but this is absurd:
First, Trump would have to voluntarily exit the race. Officials say there is no mechanism for forcing him to withdraw his nomination. (Trump has not given any indications that he no longer wants to be his party’s nominee.)
Then it would be up to the 168 members of the Republican National Committee to choose a successor, though the process is complicated.
One Republican legal expert has advised party officials that, for practical reasons, Trump would have to drop out by early September to give the party enough time to choose his replacement and get the next nominee’s name on the ballot in enough states to win.
All of that is unlikely, starting with the first premise, that Trump might “voluntarily exit the race” now, or ever. But Trump did try to calm the waters, by ignoring the current mess and revisiting his biggest hits:
One year ago this week, then-long shot candidate Donald Trump was alluding to Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle as the reason for her tough questions during the first presidential debate. The GOP nominee took up re-litigating that one-sided feud on Wednesday, saying he was referring to Kelly’s nose, ears, or mouth when he said she had “blood coming out of her whatever.” Anyone who disagrees is “perverted,” Trump told attendees at a Daytona Beach, Florida town hall.
He also rationalized that he was “acting out ‘groveling'” New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski when he jerked and trashed around on stage last November, which was widely read as Trump mocking the reporter’s disabilities.
Trump said he’s spent “millions” on ramps and other features to make his properties accessible to people with disabilities, apparently a reference to the legal requirements for buildings under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “I am a tremendous fan” of disabled people, Trump added.
During the nominee’s wide-ranging address, he also suggested that if his policy banning Muslim immigration was in place before Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists “wouldn’t have been here to knock down the World Trade Center.”
He decided it was best to clarify the past rather than address the present – at least it was safer – but Josh Marshall returns to the original problem, and he sees no chance that Trump withdraws from the race, despite Republican wishful thinking to the contrary:
In the quite unlikely case of Trump leaving the race, who would replace him? My understanding is that in this all but unprecedented situation the Republican National Committee would convene and pick a replacement. Even if they wanted to canvas the views of Republicans nationwide there’s simply no practical way and no time to do that.
So who do they pick? Good luck. Trump isn’t an accident. His ascendance is tied to Republican voters who became a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of the GOP elites’ own creation. Weened on decades of victim-speak, impossible goals, over-primed lust for revenge against various domestic bad guys and outsiders and perverts and all the rest, they finally rebelled and chose someone who at least said he could follow through on the political snuff films they see on Breitbart, Newsmax, WorldNetDaily and the rest.
So who wants to replace Trump? Cruz certainly, someone who is probably too conservative for a national electorate and wildly reviled as someone actually less likable than Trump. Pence? A right-wing non-entity who his own state’s Republican Party didn’t want anymore. Ryan? Maybe, but he’s probably too smart to put himself through that. Jeb or Rubio, who voters massively rejected?
There’s no way out of this:
The real story is that this reopens all the structural divisions in the GOP itself, precisely what the primary process was unable to grapple with successfully. Only now it gets hashed out not with any input from voters but literally behind closed doors by literally a group of Republican insiders and elites. And all this with 90 days before Election Day? That should go amazingly well.
This doesn’t even get into the logistical and in some cases legal obstacles to changing the name on the ballot once you get into September.
It’s all like a fevered reverie of contested convention and all the other denial nonsense we’ve seen since last fall. The truth is that as bad as the Trump situation is, I think most members of the RNC, high level Republicans would look at that scenario and say, “Let’s stick with Trump.”
They’re stuck with Trump, and Marshall adds this:
I can’t help but note what seems obvious.
We’ve had Judge Curiel, Megyn Kelly, the banning of an entire religion from America’s shores, the demand to deport 3% of the US population, the Khan family, protester beatings. Tell me when to stop, okay? There’s a lot more. And yet what seems to have been the red line was Trump refusing to endorse Paul Ryan and John McCain in their Republican primaries. Yes, the Khan debacle was big. But little more than a week ago we had Republicans coming out of Cleveland saying that Trump was killing it.
Even if you take a more generous view – an extremely generous view – and say that it wasn’t really the non-endorsements – that it was just the flood of everything that’s happened since the convention, still there’s a problem. Because Trump can say, not without real credibility, that the GOP power structure only turned on him when he refused to endorse them. He has maneuvered them into looking deeply craven, having missed the opportunity to abandon him on their own terms. Of course this isn’t that unfair since they are actually craven, regardless.
And this is how craven they actually are:
In truth, I don’t think it’s really the Khans or the endorsements. It’s the polls. Seasoned politicians should know that a convention bounce can subside rather quickly. But this is a sizable bounce. And Trump’s behavior coming out of the DNC doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that he’ll regain his footing.
When Trump clinched the nomination, his polls surged. It turned out to be a fleeting surge. But it provided critical grease on the skids of numerous Republicans coming around to at least nominal support for his candidacy. The dip in his numbers, fleeting or enduring, is having a similar effect. But whatever. Bad polls numbers, the refusal to endorse the House Speaker in his primary race, these appear to be the drivers.
But that makes no sense:
Is there really anything we’ve seen about Donald Trump in the last week that wasn’t entirely obvious two weeks ago? Of course not. This is craven and ridiculous any way you slice it. Sometimes the train is rumbling down the tracks at 120 miles an hour. You have no brakes. You have no conductor. You have no way to change physics. Sometimes that’s just how it is.
And Marshall adds this:
Do we know anything more about Trump today than we knew two weeks ago? I think the answer is obviously “no”. It’s probably fair to say that if you had Trump at a 71 on the scale of absolute craziness, he’s now maybe a 74 or maybe 76.
It’s just not that different.
But now it looks like gravity does work. Acting like a maniac on the public stage is making some people less likely to vote for Trump. Scott Baio wasn’t as persuasive a messenger as Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Trump is starting to look like as big a political loser as you’d expect – or at least hope. Of course, they call convention bounces “bounces” for a reason. They tend to fade. But this is a big bounce. And you should be confident that endangered Republican senators are getting very bleak reports from pollsters working for their campaigns or the NRSC.
It’s all about the numbers:
I get that the Khan debacle seems particularly extreme, not only for the callousness, the violation of one of contemporary America’s gravest public taboos and more than anything else the lack of self-control and overabundance of self-destructiveness. But if Trump were polling better I’m confident we’d just be seeing more handwringing. The belief that he might actually be able to win is the glue which has bound together the bad faith, hypocrisy, fear and general derp congealing the Republican Party around Trump. Absent that, everybody will start to run for the hills.
That’s what they seem to be doing now. They have something worse than a madman on their hands, they have a loser. They could sigh and accept the madman. Madmen can be useful. Madmen keep the opposition off balance. But there’s no way to accept a loser. Losers take you down with them.
And then things got worse:
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough reported on the air Wednesday morning that when Donald Trump met for a briefing with an unnamed foreign policy expert, the GOP nominee allegedly asked, “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?” several times.
Scarborough made the claim during an interview with retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who expressed concern about how Trump would be an “erratic” and “inconsistent” commander-in-chief.
When Hayden curtly said he’s not aware a single one of his colleagues advising Trump on foreign policy, Scarborough spoke up.
“I have to follow up with that, but I’ll be very careful here. Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump, and three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked, at one point, ‘If we have them, why can’t we use them?” Scarborough said.
“Trump asked three times?” commentator Mike Barnicle asked.
“Three times in an hour briefing, ‘Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?'” Scarborough said again.
Several beats of stunned silence went by before co-host Mika Brzezinski said, “Be careful, America and be careful, Republican leaders. Your party is blowing up.”
There were the usual denials that there was any such conversation, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog makes the convincing case that the foreign policy expert was Henry Kissinger – a link to Trump bragging that he had met with Kissinger and Kissinger told him he was nuts, but Trump saying that when he had heard Trump out, Kissinger told Trump that Trump was a genius – and another link to Kissinger saying he said no such thing to Trump. The idea here is that, given recent events, Kissinger leaked this key detail of that months-old minor conversation to Scarborough, a reliable Republican of the Gingrich generation. Kissinger may be a nasty piece of work, but he’s not in favor of global thermonuclear war.
That minor conversation was now no longer minor:
Conservative national security hawk and former Jeb Bush adviser John Noonan used a Wednesday tweetstorm to sound off on his concerns about a report that Donald Trump had repeatedly asked an unnamed adviser why the United States could not use nuclear weapons.
“Buckle the hell up,” Noonan tweeted. “Nuclear deterrence is about balance. Trump is an elephant jumping up and down on one side of the scale. So damn dangerous.”
Before moving to the Foreign Policy Initiative and advising Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush during their campaigns, Noonan served as a Minuteman III nuclear launch officer in the U.S. Air Force.
That explains one of the tweets:
I can’t get my mind off the young officers on nuke alert right now. Wondering if they’ll soon answer to a madman. And be asked to do a duty that should morally be asked of no human being, ever.
The base may have wanted a vindictive madman to speak for them, to give voice to their anger, much of which may be justified in a world that’s moving too damned fast, going global, and leaving too many good people behind, but they may not have wanted this. The complete package is a bit scary – but the whole Republican Party, other than Ted Cruz, bought the complete package, no modifications or substitutions allowed. They should be more careful next time, if the Republican Party’s still around.